"Teachers need to consider
how outdoor play can become
more intentional than just free
A group of professionals
from university extension and private practice have collaborated to
discover what it takes to create exemplary outdoor learning spaces for
young children. Their efforts will lead to the development of an evaluation
instrument that childcare centers and schools can use to improve their
Among those involved in
the project are Dr. Karen DeBord in the Department
of Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS), College
of Agriculture and Life Sciences at N.C.
State; Robin Moore and Nilda Cosco of the Natural
Learning Initiative (NLI), N.C. States College
of Design; Dr. Linda Hestnes of the School
of Human Environmental Sciences, University
of North Carolina at Greensboro; and Janet McGinnis of Health Directions
in Chapel Hill.
The partners each bring
a particular perspective to outdoor learning. DeBord, a child development
specialist, and Hestnes of UNC-G bring knowledge of young children and
how they learn. Moore, professor of landscape architecture and adjunct
professor in FCS, and Cosco are experts in the design of environments
that support healthy child development. McGinnis addresses issues of
health and safety.
The effort grew out of a
mounting concern that the emphasis on playground regulation had literally
sapped the life from many play areas where young children spend their
days. Playgrounds were stripped of most equipment, and new plastic structures
became the centerpieces of outdoor play areas, DeBord said.
For public parks,
this equipment works fine, Moore said. At a childcare center,
the kids are there eight to 10 hours a day, five days a week. They need
an environment that engages their attention and interest and stimulates
their curiosity every day. Play equipment on its own cant do that.
But add a bird blind,
where children can hide and observe birds attracted by feeders or add
a vegetable garden with colorful and interesting plants, and real learning
begins. Other outdoor learning options include a butterfly or bog garden,
where children are free to play and interact with the environment.
These are examples of outdoor enhancements that NLI helped craft for corporate childcare centers at SAS Institute and GlaxoSmithKline in the Research Triangle Park. Both programs are run by Bright Horizons, one of the most progressive companies in corporate childcare, Moore said.
While the outdoor learning
spaces created for these centers provide innovative learning opportunities
for young children, Moore and DeBord realize that such innovation comes
with a price. In a recent statewide survey conducted by NLI, childcare
providers said money and training were the most critical needs for any
improvements to their outdoor spaces, Moore said.
With increased emphasis
on licensing and accreditation of childcare centers, there is much information
available on how to improve indoor spaces, but not much on outdoor spaces,
We wanted to be able
to look at outdoor childrens environments associated with daycare
programs, compare learning environments and say which one is of higher
quality. The research literature does not address much about outdoors
other than safety, and we wanted to go beyond safety and talk about
quality, DeBord added.
Theres no assessment
tool out there anywhere in the country that were aware of that
units such as the state Division of Child Development can use to make
an objective assessment of the quality of outdoor environments,
In addition to creating
an assessment tool for outdoor environments, the researchers want to
provide guidance on how centers can move in new directions with their
outdoor space. With a scale such as this, childcare teachers can see
the possibilities for their outdoor areas and become motivated to try
The collaborators have developed
five dimensions of good outdoor environments for children. First, the
physical environment should be well oriented to the sun and include
some sheltered space for rainy days. Indoor and outdoor uses should
be integrated so that one flows into the other.
entrances to the spaces and between play areas should be friendly,
welcoming and buffered from automobile traffic. Erosion and drainage
should be addressed.
The research group wanted
teachers to better understand the potential for outdoor environments,
so possibilities for renovation should be considered. Can the play areas
be changed? Is there a balance between manufactured play items and natural
items, such as landscape plants?
Interaction is another dimension
of outdoor environments. The play area should encourage interaction
between children, children and adults, and children and their environments.
Play and learning settings,
a third dimension, should provide space for a diverse range of activities:
a stage for performing, a story-telling area, spaces for sand and water
play, gardens or a puppet theater. Loose parts, which range
from manufactured items like shovels and blocks to natural items like
pine-cones and shells for children to move, count, order and take apart,
also are important for any play area, DeBord said.
Said Moore, The more
loose parts, the more children can engage in social and imaginative
activity and dramatic play.
The collaborators on this
project realize that a playground is more than just equipment and play
areas. Another dimension of the scale deals with how teachers and care-givers
are involved with the learning that takes place outdoors, just as they
are with indoor learning.
The play and learning program,
the fifth and final dimension, should incorporate the outdoors as an
extension of the classroom.
Teachers need to integrate
the learning activities between the outdoors and the indoors and consider
how outdoor play can become more intentional than just free running
around. Anything you can do inside you should be able to do outside,
including reading, art, music, math, language arts, tape recorders and
science, of course, DeBord said.
Added Moore, Diverse
outdoor environments are more interesting to teachers as well. The environment
provides a vehicle for good, positive interaction between teachers and
The outdoor environment
should be a place where children are encouraged to touch, handle and
even pick the plants. The teacher or caregiver should balance caring
for the outdoor environment with creating an environment that is child-friendly,
For example, if children
are looking for worms and bugs, the teacher could give them some collecting
trays and some shovels to move that along a little further, she
said. Or if they are watching birds and wondering about them,
the teacher can find ways to extend their curiosity into learning. The
teacher might add binoculars or bird books to the environment.
In addition to looking at
outdoor environments in North Carolina, the team hopes the assessment
tool they create will be used nationally and internationally. A graduate
student in Iowa is collecting data with the instrument to test it in
a colder climate. DeBord plans to travel to Sweden in the fall to test
the scale with climates and programs there.
The researchers are now
working to validate the effectiveness of the assessment tool. Once that
is complete, DeBord said, they will provide training for Extension professionals
N.C. State University will host the Early Childhood Outdoor Design Institute June 5-7. Organizers hope to attract childcare providers, parks and recreation professionals, architects and landscape architects. For more information on the institute, visit the Web site http://www.naturalearning.org/.